I had never seen a dead body before, and walking into the lone Catholic church in Hamilton, Montana on a frozen December afternoon, I was certain that I would never want to see a dead body again. I stood in a line with too many people I didn’t recognize, and we all slowly shuffled forward through the white front doors of the church, past the small folding table adorned with Bibles and flowers, and towards the shiny wooden coffin with the dead body inside. As I got closer to the coffin, I was stunned by how casually these strangers could interact with something so dead. Men peered their heads over the lip of the coffin and mumbled a few words to the face inside. Women cried and said prayers, their gazes shifting from body to heaven to body, again, and one woman held the dead body’s hand.
I thought I might vomit. I wondered how these people I’d never seen before could look at the exterior of an old man I knew so well and only feel the right amount of grief. They were not sobbing. They were not screaming or bawling or sick to their stomach. They were polite. Old women shed a few graceful tears while the men coughed into their cloth handkerchiefs, and they all sat down in the cold, hard pews and waited for everyone else to do the same.
When there was no one left to separate me from the coffin and the person inside, I took a deep breath and looked down at the only dead body I’ve ever seen. Someone had dressed him in a light gray suit. His favorite dark black cowboy hat rested on his stomach, and his hands had been made to seem as if they were gripping the brim on either side. I noticed the thin, gold wedding band still on his finger, shining against the dark of the hat, and I wondered whose job it was to dress the dead.
For the first time, I let myself look beyond the wedding band, beyond the hat and the suit, and look at the face of this poor, old man. His wispy gray hair seemed almost invisible against the white satin lining of the coffin, but the color had not yet completely vanished from his weathered skin. His eyebrows, too, seemed particularly lively, and I remembered hearing my aunt on the phone just a few days before, yelling at the owner of the funeral home to keep away from his eyebrows, and here they were: wild and bushy and filled with adventure, just like so long ago.
When we visited our grandparents as children, my brother and I would sit on his lap every night before bed and listen as he wished us good night from behind those wild eyebrows. “Bon soir. Bonne nuit. Dormez bien,” he’d sing to us. Good evening. Good night. Sleep well. And my brother and I would say those words in unison back to our grandfather before running upstairs to bed.
Standing above his coffin in that Catholic church, I was glad that his eyebrows obscured much of the top half of his face. I could hold my gaze just above his eyes and forget, for a moment, that they would never open again. To just myself, I thanked that employee at the funeral home who had been the one to shut his eyes for the final time, thankful that it was not my job to dress the dead.
I watched the gracefully tearful old women surrounding me, sharing their sadness with the world, and I did not want to grieve like them. I did not want to share the pews with these politely saddened strangers and wonder how each of them had come to know this man. But I leaned forward, anyway, just slightly. Whispering into the depths of the coffin that held the dead body of my grandfather, I let myself get lost in his wild, bushy eyebrows for one final time, then took my place among the strangers in the pews. “Bon soir. Bonne nuit. Dormez bien,” I whispered. Good evening. Good night. Sleep well.